Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert Photo by Caleb Deschanel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

REVIEW: “Never Look Away” ★★★★ and ½

Sweeping, ambitious, and elegantly crafted, “Never Look Away” packs art history, politics, romance, and suspense into its three-hours-plus running time, and almost all of it works.

Sweeping, ambitious, and elegantly crafted, “Never Look Away” packs a lot into its three-hours-plus running time.

Somehow, however, it never feels rushed or forced. For all it has to say about art and politics, for all its romance and family drama, it all unfolds with a remarkable patience.

There are structural elements in the film that don’t pay off as satisfyingly as some may expect. But for the most part it’s compelling work, the kind that leaves you talking about it for hours and days to come.

What’s it about?

Spanning almost three decades, “Never Look Away” really tells two stories.

On the one hand, there’s the story of artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling). Kurt spends his formative years as both a man and a painter under two successive repressive regimes.

First it was the Nazis, who both rose and fell while he was a child living in Eastern Germany. Later, it was the GDR, which rose in the wake of the Iron Curtain dropped by the Soviets on post-World War II Europe.

Miraculously, the efforts of both totalitarian governments to control the creation and interpretation of art, to create an art that acts in service of the state, fail to overcome Kurt’s own creative instincts and inclinations.

His journey as an artist brings him in contact with Ellie (Paula Beer), a beautiful fashion student, and the two fall in love despite the disapproval of Ellie’s father, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch, “Bridge of Spies“).

The other story the film tells is that of Seeband, himself. A brilliant medical doctor and gynecologist, Seeband’s fortunes also rise and fall as regimes come and go in East Germany.

But Seeband has secrets to hide, even from his family. His choices throughout the film have powerful consequences both on his life and Kurt’s.

As decades pass, ties that bind the two men beyond Ellie, ties neither was aware of, begin to surface. Their shared history proves to be the key to both political and artistic freedom for Kurt and Ellie, and a final reckoning for Seeband.

Never Look Away movie poster

Art, Politics, and Suspense

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others“) aims for the heavens with this latest work. It contains both high romantic drama and commentary on modern art, political interpretation of art, and Germany’s continued struggle to reconcile its difficult post-World War II legacy.

As stated in the open, somehow all those elements feel balanced in the film. This is one rare occasion where a three-hour-plus running time doesn’t feel extravagant or exhausting — this movie really needs all that room to do all the things the film maker wants to do here, and most of it really works.

But beyond von Donnersmarck’s clear ambitions in terms of meaning, there’s also stunning visual craftsmanship at work in “Never Look Away.” Cinematography in the film is at times simply breathtaking, capturing both landscapes and mood with vibrant, brilliant precision and artistry.

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Worth seeing?

Add to all that superb performances from the film’s cast and you get a film that merits being talked about as one of the year’s very best.

It does have its flaws. As stated earlier, not everything set up in “Never Look Away” pays off the way one might expect. Depending on the viewer, that relative lack of resolution may prove a disappointment.

But for the most part, this is a remarkable work of film. Consider it must-see if you enjoy foreign films. If you know a little about 20th Century art history, there’s all the more here to appreciate.

Never Look Away

Starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Lars Eidinger. Directed by
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Running time: 189 minutes

Rated R for graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images.

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